Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The importance of failure

I made chili tonight. Good, basic chili. And I blew it. I'm not sure what went wrong, but something in the seasoning was off, or maybe the meat was just too long in the freezer, but it was just boring. It wasn't inedible, but it wasn't the warm, comforting creation I was hoping for.

I was frustrated. I've made chili tens if not hundreds of times before, used all different kinds of ingredients and never use a recipe. It's usually really good. But this time? Not so much. I kept tweaking it until finally there were enough spices to cover the blandness and we could at least eat dinner, but it wasn't what I had hoped for.

At first I was embarrassed. I take pride in my cooking and consider a meal well prepared a little love letter to my friends and family. But then a friend reminded me that
  1. he knows I'm a good cook
  2. there is no endpoint in becoming a better cook, one is always learning
  3. and part of learning is sometimes failing. 
The whole point is to learn from my mistakes, try again and do it better (or at least differently) next time.

So it is with cooking, riding a bike, writing a blog post, just about everything. You try, you will sometimes fail and that is a gift. For the home cook especially, as long as no one gets sick or dies, you can always order pizza and try again another time.

So let's see, next time I'll get the meat from someplace else. I'll use the frozen peppers from the garden. I'll...

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

From fast to feast

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It's a complicated Holy Day, wherein the Book of Life is written, closed and sealed - everything you did for the previous year has been recorded and your fate for the coming year is written. It's also a fast day, a full 25 hours without food and water. I admit, I drink water; exceptions can be made in case of medical need and with a history of kidney stones I'm not going to get that dehydrated. I wrote about some of my experiences this year here.

At the end of this day of fasting and contemplation you break fast, entering the new year with joyful celebration. I did so last night with friends and family, a lovely meal that I spent several hours preparing. For any observant Jews reading this, yes, I know violates the admonition against work, but cooking is contemplative for me. It brought me tremendous peace knowing I was preparing a meal for those I love, an offering of life and forgiveness. This meal was prepared with the accompanying music of my growling stomach and the constant reminder to not nibble, trust my sense of seasoning, all will be well.

I wanted it to be special but not extravagant. Roasted chicken stuffed with lemon and tarragon, lamb studded with garlic and rosemary, roasted potatoes and garlic cloves, asparagus, roasted figs, kugel, honeycake (these last two brought by guests). Maybe I went a little overboard, but, oh, it was worth it.

With each slice of the knife I considered the beauty of the ingredients. The gaping mouths of the figs as I drizzled them with honey. The naked chicken, whom I thanked for its life and offering. The garlic cloves, each and every one sheathed in papery skin, their pungent stickiness on my fingers. The lamb, such an ancient offering, such a lovely living thing, now an offering for those whom I love. Potatoes and asparagus, from under the earth and over, each laughing with their own secret lives of green tips and round bodies. And the herbs fresh from my garden, the product of sunlight and soil and time.

The meal was a prayer to prepare and a communion to eat. A fine closure to a day of contemplation and community.

May this new season find you well, with luscious tastes and welcoming smiles to greet you.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From poor food to pride

I'm not dead. I've been blogging up a storm at my other site, truestorieshonestlies, and haven't had the chutzpah to come here too. I miss writing and thinking about food, but haven't been sure of what to say.

I'm traveling now, in North Carolina far from my usual New England. My breakfast this morning was of the great American delicacies, biscuits and gravy. For those of you unfamiliar with this fine regional dish, it's sturdy white-flour biscuits covered in white gravy made out of a roux based in sausage fat. The better gravies have bits of sausage suspended in the mess and are a little spicy. It's bound to kill you if eaten too often and utterly delicious.

As I was savoring every morsel this morning I got to thinking about other sturdy, regional foods I love. None are healthy, they all are rich, fatty and delicious. Cheesesteak sandwiches like those I grew up with in Philadelphia; fish tacos; biscuits and gravy; you know the kind of foods I'm talking about. These are all foods made from what's available, the leftover odds and ends in the kitchen from those homes where you need to use everything, nothing can go to waste. These are foods that are more concerned about daily caloric intake - making sure there is enough - than with a balanced diet, low-fat, high-fiber kind of life.

What I find interesting is that these foods have moved from poor food, stuff you eat because you have to, to regional pride. Ask anyone from Philadelphia about the local cuisine and I can promise they will mention steak sandwiches, not knowing that originally they were made with the leftover scraps of meat. Southern Californians love their fish tacos, cheap and hot from stands, but they were originally a food of necessity, made out of what was readily available. And biscuits and gravy are the mainstay of any Southern establishment that wants to tout its Southerness. These are no longer the foods of poverty, but of pride and tradition.

Maybe part of the collective memory here is saying, "We have overcome our lean years. We eat this now because we can, not because we have to." Or maybe it's just because it tastes so very good.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fermentation. Mmmm...

I've discovered the joys of homemade yogurt. It's remarkably easy to make and tastes better than the store bought stuff. I decided to try it after reading an article in the New York Times that I can no longer find, so I can't currently give you the link.

It's simple. Scald a quart of milk. Let it cool to 115-120F. Add 2 tablespoons of yogurt with live cultures, pour it all into a warm bowl, cover and keep warm (115-120F). An oven with the light on is almost warm enough, I turned the flame on a couple of times for 15-20 seconds to keep it warm enough. In 4 hours or so you have yogurt, the byproduct of millions of bacteria breeding and digesting. That's it! It's smooth and creamy and soothing.

When I made yogurt yesterday I strained it to thicken it up some as I didn't let it sit for as long as I should have. But boy, it's good. And it's one of those foods that feels as though it's good for you at the same time.

I like the idea of eating cultured food. This used to be an important part of how people cooked, though not so much anymore. Good, tangy flavors - yogurt, sour dough and sour pickles for example (not to mention wine and beer) - come about from fermentation. We needn't be so afraid of our environments that we stop experimenting with foods like this. I think I'll try sour pickles next. Mmmm....

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What defines "good"?

I've been traveling quite a bit lately, which means my diet has been rather erratic. For one meal I'll have a salad or sushi while at the next I'm running to another event so I'll grab a bagel or a bag of chips. For the most part it's been fine and almost everything I've eaten I would describe as "good." But what is good food?

Does good mean nutritious? Tasty? Local? Quick? Comforting?

Yes. It means all of those and more. I believe that an honest definition of good food is broad and flexible with a few ground rules. I know this isn't a groundbreaking observation but I suspect accepting this definition may give us permission to treat ourselves with necessary kindness and therefore live healthier and tastier lives.

Ideally, good food is good for your body, spirit and community. It manages to sate the appetites of hunger and desire while not encouraging us to over-indulge because we're afraid that we won't be satisfied again any time soon. It nourishes our bodies while it stimulates our senses. It soothes the spirit with the ritual of cooking or the subtle message of our own worth by providing us with something that tastes good. It supports community by being shared, commented upon, talked about. We may even make lower impact choices, thereby helping our communities even more.

Many of the foods we choose can't meet these criteria every time. But if we try to choose mindfully, to eat good food when we can, we not only enjoy what we eat more, eating becomes an active part of living, not just something we have to do as we rush through our lives.

When I chose sushi or salad, a bagel or a bag of chips, if I took the time to enjoy the crunch of the chip it was as much good food as the salad. If I ate the glistening sushi without thinking, merely as something to tide me over, then it was only nourishment, not good food.

I know I won't succeed every time, or even most of the time. But when I take the time to savor my life everything tastes that much better.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My own, personal, cookbook

A friend of mine is moving into her first apartment soon. She's full of excitement and terror, this is a big step for her. She loves cooking, so to make the leap a little easier I'm preparing two gifts. She already knows about the selection of spices I"m giving her, all pulled from my spice cabinet. The other is a surprise.

I'm writing down a bunch of recipes I've cooked for her in the past, food she's loved. My mother did something similar for me when I moved out on my own and I deeply appreciated it.

Noodle kugel
Chicken soup
Butterscotch brownines

These are all foods she could find recipes for online, but they wouldn't be my recipes, not the food she's eaten when needing comfort, so it wouldn't be the same.

Beef stew
Roasted veggies

It's odd for me, writing all of these recipes down, I've never done this before. Sure, I've jotted down notes, but most of these are foods I learned how to cook from my mother or things I figured out on my own.

Tuna noodle casserole
Stone soup
Chicken and rice

It's at once both an interesting exercise ("Just how much spice do I use? How do I measure a palmful?") and a chance to think back on what defines comfort, how I comfort myself and others.

I came across a Craig Clairborne quote recently that I may use as the header for this recipe collection. "Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love." I think this captures much of my feeling towards cooking.

I expect she will appreciate this gift. I hope she adds to it with her own recipes and passes it on someday. Because, really, food is better when shared.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wow, it's been a long time

I've been blog-a-phobic lately, so haven't been posting here or on my other blog. While I could speculate endlessly about why (the blues? creative block? finger cramps?) I won't bother and will instead tell you that I made a crock pot full of ox-tail stew for dinner tonight.

It strikes me as funny that many cuts of meat that used to be offal are now trendy. I used to pay maybe $1.50/lb at most for ox-tail, now I'm excited if I find it for $3.50. I did, indeed, find a sale, so took those wonderful, fatty, collagenous pieces of meat along with carrots, onion, shallots, garlic (lots and lots of garlic), celery, wine and assorted spices and let the crock pot do its thing.

By the time I came home, after 8+ hours of cooking, the house smelled wonderful.

I skimmed at least a half cup of fat off the stew, adjusted the spices (mostly it needed more salt and pepper, the oregano, marjoram and bay were enough, though I also added some balsamic vinegar to cut the richness a bit), let it cook a bit more then served on top of noodles.

My god, the decadence. The meat was meltingly tender, the veggies had disintegrated into mush and the whole thing was redolent with ancient memories of using every scrap of the beast, something we shy away from now. I could imagine the pot simmering on an old wood burning cook stove for hours. I also thought about the African American/Appalachian story, Taileypo, in which the protagonist (such as he is) eats the tail of a monstrous beast who later comes to get his tail back. Here's hoping no oxen come tonight for me and instead the universe simply nods in approval that the old flavors are not forgotten.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer